Tamar and Laszlo the Beautiful
by Deborah Kay Davies
First collection? Yes
awards: Winner, Wales Book of the Year 2009
Deborah Kay Davies was born in Pontypool in South Wales.
Her first collection of poetry, Things
You Think I Don't Know, was published by Parthian in 2006.
Her stories have been published in various anthologies and broadcast on
BBC Radio 4. She has a PhD in Creative and Critical Writing from
Cardiff University, where she now teaches creative writing.
"She has drawn a naked baby
lying in some grass. From the neck down it appears normal, but where
its head should be there is a radio. Notes float up from the radio’s
mouth. Then I see that instead of an umbilical cord the baby has an
electric flex coming out of its navel. The flex floats up towards the
top of the page and ends in an unconnected plug. I ask her, what does
it mean? It’s the radio-baby, she says patiently, as if I’m incredibly
Reviewed by Brian George
This is Deborah Kay Davies’s first collection of short stories, though
she has published one collection of poetry and a number of her stories
have previously appeared in anthologies. It’s a powerful, unsettling
book, and was a deserved winner of the English language award in the
2009 Wales Book of the Year.
The nineteen linked pieces in the collection tell the story of two
sisters, Grace and Tamar. The construction of the book is interesting,
as the stories move forward in chronological progression, but the
overall effect is completely different from even the most fragmentary
of novels. In Davies’s collection, each story stands as a
self-contained piece – indeed a number of them had already won prizes
or appeared in other anthologies before being linked together in the
current collection. There is no need for the writer to indulge in
lengthy exposition, or refer back explicitly to earlier events: the
reader is left to do a lot of the work in filling in the gaps in the
chronology and developing explanations for the sisters’ psychological
More importantly, perhaps, the writing has the taut, pared-down quality
of short story writing at its best. For me, the only story in which
this tautness slackened was the longest, Grace and the Basset Hound. Though
it builds to a sickeningly powerful climax, the opening section of the
story is slightly too expository for my liking.
The book tells the story of the two sisters as they grow from childhood
through to their thirties. Viewpoint shifts constantly between the two
main characters, and the author uses a mix of first and third person
narratives in the stories. The stories take place in the south Wales
valleys (specifically, the Eastern valley of Gwent), but the setting
could almost be anywhere. There is little that is typically Welsh about
the context, though the immediate physical environment is observed with
sharp attention to detail.
The book’s construction perfectly mirrors the fragmentary, alienated
nature of the girls’ lives and psychological makeup. This is
emphatically not some sentimental, cutesy portrayal of children growing
up. Both girls appear troubled, even damaged, in different ways. The
stories focus very sharply on the female characters: the two sisters,
of course, but also their mother, who is a strong presence in the first
half of the book in particular. The stories show the difficult
relationship Grace and Tamar have with each other. Sibling rivalry is
taken to an extreme pitch in a number of the stories, with the girls
prone to inflicting a worrying level of violence on each other, and
routinely insulting each other as they get older. The reader senses
that, despite all this, there is a strong, unbreakable bond between
them, and this is made explicit in the moving final story, Cords. (Davies has a penchant for
laconic, one-word titles, usually concrete nouns, which do a brilliant
job of encapsulating the essence of a story).
There are also some very effective portrayals of the experience of
motherhood: the book opens with the mother giving birth to Tamar, the
younger sister, and Radio Baby
contains one of the most chilling depictions of the effects of
post-natal depression that I’ve ever read in fiction. The relationship
between the girls and their mother is equally troubled: there are no
sentimental pictures of family life here.
The male characters are shadowy, ineffectual or grotesque, prone to
misunderstanding, neglecting or abusing the girls and women they come
into contact with.
Sex is a key theme throughout the collection, with the girls acutely
aware of their own sexuality from an early age. The stories show them
moving through brief flirtations with romantic delusions as
pre-adolescents, into casual sexual encounters, marriage and divorce.
One of the strongest stories, Thong,
shows Grace stealing Tamar’s boyfriend from under her nose, and Tamar’s
characteristically brutal reaction.
One of the strengths of Davies’s writing is its precise, but unshowy,
evocation of sense impressions and the physical world:
"Grace can hear the clock tutting. Its
air. The organ pipes lean over as if, like her, they are listening to
the pews crack. She can smell the pews, each one exudes beeswax and
pine. When Grace was a little girl she though beeswax was the smell of
This kind of descriptive writing is never indulged in purely for
effect: the sisters have a heightened awareness of the world of the
senses, and at times they seem imprisoned by the vividness of these
reactions, unable to connect with normal codes of behaviour in the
"real world". In one story Grace notes that her mind "has emptied like
a winter swimming pool".
The most powerful of the stories, such as Radio Baby
and Cords, manage the
of combining precise
description with a haunting, dreamlike quality in which the characters
(the mother in Radio Baby and
Tamar in Cords) appear on the
madness. Perhaps the most striking quality of the writing, though, is
its tone: matter-of-fact yet surreal, often sardonic but with intense
"I become aware again of the sound the
machine is making, and the tinkling of spoons. My sister and I are
holding hands tightly…We are both crying silently…In the dream you tell
me we have to cut the cord, she says. She squeezes me even harder, the
brown of her eyes glittering with tears. But you see, she says, shaking
my clasped hands, this cord, we can never break it, can we?"
these stories pack a terrific emotional punch, which hits the reader
all the harder for emerging from beneath the surface of apparently
inconsequential everyday reality.